| 26 April, 2015
KOLKATA-BASED bio-tech expert Arun Ram, and some creative botany, has turned a residential building into potential seed to feed India’s 1.2 billion people. Part of a non-governmental organisation called Uthnau, Ram has transformed 5,000 square feet of an apartment terrace in Rajarhat, beyond Kolkata’s New Town, into an urban farmland that can produce 1.2 tonnes of vegetables and fruits a year. This is eastern India’s first, and perhaps the country’s largest such urban organic food project. With it, India joins the global “rooftop revolution”.
Multiply 12,000 kg of vegetables and fruits into millions of such building rooftops across India and the mind boggles at the food-growing potential of this entirely organic (natural, chemical-free) process. Homegrown organic produce means we eat tastier food with no cancer-causing fertilisers, no poisonous chemicals, no environmentally treacherous genetically modified seeds. No paying fancy prices for organic produce in shops, nor groaning over grocery bills, courtesy ruthlessly greedy middlemen and wholesalers.
The big picture shows such projects being literally a homegrown local solution to a worldwide challenge of food security for increasing populations with decreasing resources. The UN’s “State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2014” report says India is home to a quarter of the world’s undernourished population, that 190.7 million people in India, Asia’s third largest economy, are undernourished and go hungry daily.
At the modest least, like manna from heaven, 22 families in an apartment building in Kolkata daily eat healthy vegetables and fruits grown from a rooftop above their heads. “Food Visionary” is a term yet to be housed in dictionaries, but Ram and his Uthnau colleagues may be pushing it there. Ram combined innovation with university-acquired botanical knowledge and experience in the agricultural backlands of Birbhum district in northern Bengal. The fruitful output was what he calls “beautility” — beauty with utility.
“Beautility” was brightly on show, on a sunny April morning, from greenhouses on the terrace of the Siddha housing complex in the sprawling, sleek new eco-friendly township near Kolkata’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport. Inside the small, neat greenhouses, I saw portable, lightweight, sturdy bamboo baskets that seasonally produce more than 35 types of vegetables, from pesticide-free carrots, cabbages and cauliflowers to rare berry-shaped black coloured chillis. I chomped a black chilli — and it stung as much as a long green one.
This rooftop organic garden offers 30 types of brinjals and 12 varieties of luscious red tomatoes. Biting into one was like sinking one’s teeth into a juicy pear. The bountiful greenhouses still leave room on the terrace for more conventional uses, as for children to play and residents to host moonlight dinners. No muck and mud about the terrace either. The vegetable produce grows out of containers with specially prepared soil substitutes. The plant-holder could be a bamboo basket or a discarded Pepsi Cola bottle. The team fills each with four carefully prepared layers that include compost, plant nutrients, natural manure and a special core layer made of coconut coir sourced from Tamil Nadu.
The entire process is called hydroponics, from Latin meaning “working water”, or techniques of growing plants without soil. Special by-products of rooftop hydroponics include a natural cooling process for the entire building to reduce temperatures by as much as seven degrees Celsius.
Other multiple benefits include easy access to fresh produce (India has a 1,500 km long “food mile”, or the average distance from food producer to consumer), creating green jobs, better air quality, less healthcare costs. As consultants and facilitators, Uthnau provides expertise and training. After initial investment and preparatory work, growing organic vegetables and fruits at home, I was assured, was as easy and inexpensive as maintaining flower pots in the balcony. A bit of watering, once in the morning and again in the evening, and even this could be replaced with a simple automated drip irrigation system. The returns are about 25 kg of vegetables per basket per year.
When Uthnau co-founder and old friend Ajoy John told me about this urban rooftop vegetable project, hours after I reached Kolkata, it struck me instantly as one of those happy “why-are-not-more-people-doing-this” ideas. Urban rooftop farming is not new in India, thanks to pioneering efforts of the Organic Farming Association of India. In the past three years, a few thousand individual homes in cities like Jaipur and Bangalore are growing organic vegetables and fruits for daily use.
The 5,000-square foot project in Kolkata, though, is a first of its kind in scope and size. Uthnau last week received enquires and offers to dedicate 15,000-50,000 square feet-sized organic farming projects within and outside West Bengal.
With such largescale urban homegrown organic food produce, India successful joins urban organic farming countries such as Cuba and the USA. For instance, “Sky Vegetables” from Newton, Massachussets, celebrates itself as an “an innovative, urban agriculture company dedicated to building sustainable, commercial-scale hydroponic farms on urban rooftops across America”.
Dire necessity became the mother of city farming in Cuba. Since 1994, Cubans faced acute food shortages from economic embargoes after the Soviet Union fell. Havana, the capital, fought back with residents growing vegetables and fruits from rooftops, empty parking lots, on roofs of abandoned cars. The Cuban government contributed by passing laws to boost urban organic farming. Within five years, Havana’s 8,000 urban food gardens were producing over 50 per cent of the country’s vegetables and fruits. The British Architechtural Review magazine called it “Cuban urban farming revolution: how to create self-sufficient cities”.
India made a promising step towards “self-sufficient cities”, with West Bengal agriculture minister Purnendu Basu visiting the project in Kolkata on his own initiative. The Central government, which last year declared plans to turn India’s eastern states into an organic farming hub, may do well learn from Cuba and promote organic farming widely across this country’s cities and towns.
Arun Ram, Ajoy John, a former assistant editor of The Statesman, and Kunal Deb, a social activist working with tribals, started their urban organic farming project as part of the larger aim to provide environmentally-friendly living alternatives for city dwellers. Evolving plans, already planted and tested, includes growing rice on rooftops! Yes, rice. Nobody has yet harvested paddy atop a building, but the Uthnau trio are ready for it. They plan to resurrect forgotten varieties like the super-fragrant black rice.
The safe food word is spreading. Only the other day a cold-storage operating businessman from Assam flew to Kolkata to know more. Individual homes, large hotels particularly ecotels, educational institutions, major government and private housing complexes, the Indian Railways and even the Army — I cannot think of anyone who would reject rooftop- or balcony-grown vegetables and fruits that are safe and delicious to eat and easy to grow.
The urgency to promote urban food farming is starkly clear. About 3,000 children die every day in India from poor diet-related illness, says the Food Security Foundation of India. India is home to the world’s largest undernourished and hungry population. One-sixth of the country’s 1.2 billion population is undernourished; one in four children are malnourished. And here is a way to locally increase food production.
If India’s government and corporate leaders wake up to the urban rooftop organic farming potential, millions of families, particularly children, will immediately benefit — and many lives will be saved.